Martin Evans and John Phillips, Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).
Algeria is haunted by political violence. Witness the attacks of April and December 2007 in the political heart of Algiers. The latter—a double suicide car bombing—I first dismissed as a construction accident next door, where a new embassy is being built. The second explosion was closer, unmistakable. It rattled the windows and echoed off the whitewashed buildings into the Mediterranean. When the Algerians around me began receiving text messages naming possible locations of the attacks, I quickly called a friend working for the European Union. His office, not far from one of the blasts, was now covered in dust and splintered glass. Another acquaintance lost most of his colleagues in the targeted UN building. Worse still, a handful of people who did not work there died because he had scheduled a meeting. He is alive because he was running late.
Such terrorism of the spectacle brings fleeting international attention to what is otherwise just another forsaken conflict on the margins, another front in the global war on terror. As long as the Algerian government keeps the gas and oil flowing, they have our support and our indifference.
It has been called Algeria’s civil war and, like most civil wars, there has been nothing civil about it. It began in the early 1990s. Following demonstrations engendered by massive economic contraction in the late 1980s, the regime allowed elections in 1990 and 1991, only to find broad swaths of the country backing the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), whether for ideological reasons or just to vote against the regime. What finally triggered the civil war was the military’s decision in January 1992 to eject the president and annul the previous month’s national elections, handily won by the FIS. Algeria quickly descended into a decade of fratricide. Government repression, Islamist resistance and wartime economic opportunism danced hand in hand into the abyss.
The fighting continues, though it is far less intense than in the 1990s. There has never been any kind of peace deal between the militants and the government—no power sharing agreement, no symbolic handshake for the international press. Three times the regime has simply offered to forgive and forget, hoping to coax the Islamist guerrillas out of the maquis with offers of rahma (clemency) and monthly stipends for their penitence. Whether these policies have actually reduced the violence is difficult to gauge, given that the decline in slaughter also tracks nicely with the global rise in hydrocarbon prices. With the Algerian state economically reinflated on gas and oil profits, wages are again being paid, imports are well subsidized and new houses are being built. This is not to say that Algeria does not still face serious challenges. But, as during the 1970s boom, the Algerian state can afford to buy off opposition, mollify discontent and strangle civil society, while generally promoting its own interests, even in the face of continuing militant attacks.
It is perhaps this permanent denouement—the climax being the massacres of 1998—that is to blame for the lack of a concise, English-language political history of Algeria’s civil conflict. That is, until now.
Martin Evans, a historian at the University of Portsmouth, and John Phillips, a journalist who often writes for the Times of London, have thrown their hat into a virtually empty ring. Recent histories by Benjamin Stora and John Ruedy provide simple overviews of Algeria in the 1990s. On the other hand, Luis Martinez’s account of the 1990s war practically induces claustrophobia with its erudite micro-level approach, but treats only the first five years and is not concise. Hugh Roberts’ otherwise masterful collection of essays lacks an overarching coherence of narrative.
Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed is linear without being deterministic; deeply historical without being teleological; and richly detailed without being protracted. Long-time students of contemporary Algerian history will not find anything provocative or groundbreaking here, yet Evans and Phillips obviously have a broader audience in mind. Without reservation, the authors seek to lend currency to the Algerian conflict by situating it in the post-September 11 world, even if the narrative is heavily weighted toward the past. Indeed, Evans and Phillips find traces of the contemporary conflict in French colonialism and throughout the post-independence period, up to the socio-economic crisis that burst open in the brutally repressed riots of October 1988. From there, they delve into the political ascendancy of the FIS during Algeria’s brief rush toward multi-party democracy, the 1992 military coup and Algeria’s efforts to stand up again in the new millennium under the guidance of the current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Evans and Phillips share a deep love for Algeria, as is obvious from the street jokes, soccer-stadium chants and other personal observations that pepper the book. Their analysis goes beyond the doings of high-level officialdom to explore culture and society, bolstering their thesis and giving the narrative purchase in human terrain.
The recurrent theme, as the title suggests, is psycho-social rather than economic or institutional. And it is a very gendered thesis to boot. In the 1980s, for example, soccer became “an expression for youthful male aggression…. With nothing else to do, having a well-toned body and being able to defend oneself in a fight became a badge of pride for many young men.” At the same time, Islamist activists railed against Western pop music because artists like Boy George “subverted the traditional gender hierarchies essential to the teaching of Islam.” The 1988 riots were “a wish to recover their lost manhood.” Following the 1992 coup, it was “angry young men [who] rose to the fore.” The most vicious period of the war, from 1995 to 1998, is explained by the “assertion of power” of “male brotherhood[s].” “Through bloodshed,” Evans and Phillips claim, “these young men felt a surge of energy.” Likewise, when armed Islamists killed successful women, these acts “affirmed the murderers’ manhood,” and raping women was “a way of playing out their pent-up frustrations and asserting their power and sexual domination.” Such observations are applied to the top of the social pyramid as well. A key quality of President Houari Boumedienne (1965-1978), the authors claim, was his “masculine toughness.” And when, in 2001, former military officer Habib Souaidia accused the retired Defense Minister Khaled Nezzar, live on French TV, of ruining Algeria, it was a challenge to Nezzar’s “manhood”—a challenge answered with a libel case in French courts.
Evans and Philips laudably aim to avoid explaining Algeria’s tragedy with “a pathological Oriental mindset,” but they have simply substituted another pathology, “the anger of the post-colonial dispossessed.” No one can doubt the palpable agony of contemporary Algerian society amidst daily press accounts of riots over food, housing, education and sports across the country. The problem is that Evans and Phillips focus on the anger rather than the dispossession—the effect, not the cause.
Thus the book does not deliver on its basic promise “to scrape away the layers of confusion and obfuscation in order to reveal the causes of this violence.” Indeed, confused is how Evans and Phillips leave the reader. The authors present a hazy ensemble of generals, mafias, lobbies and clans—le pouvoir—whose cynical manipulations, regional biases and internecine battles are always there but remain opaque. Evans and Phillips have a psychological theory about the opacity as well. “Many ex-combatants” in the war of independence “were psychologically unable to make the transition from an underground fighting organization, and as a result much of Algerian politics has since been conducted in terms of cabals and inner circles by militants well-versed in the techniques of smoke and mirrors.”
The analysis of the Islamist insurgency is still more bewildering. Evans and Phillips devote considerable space to explaining the “raging nihilism” and “madness” of various militants, their resort to horrific killings and, later, massacres. Inspired by Fanon, they conclude: “By killing [the insurgents] were telling the regime that they, the dispossessed, could no longer be kept in a state of subjugation. The product of mirror rage, rejection and injustice, theirs was a mirror violence, a reply to a regime that had lied, swindled and bullied. It was also a transformative violence.” At the same time, the authors are keen to establish the possibility that Algeria’s military intelligence infiltrated elements of the notorious Armed Islamic Group, even raising such enduring questions as whether elements of Algeria’s security services staged massacres to discredit the insurgency, if not the FIS forever. Yet Evans and Philips never interrogate the competing claims of culpability in depth. They simply put the information on the table and leave it to the reader to decide.
It may be that Evans and Phillips have assigned themselves an impossible task. As they readily admit, in the late 1990s Algeria “had become a murky place with no dividing line between truth and untruth.” Under such conditions, how could we possibly expect to scrape away the layers? The vast majority of the archives, whether written or remembered, are off limits. What we have is a set of inconsistent, semi-plausible hypotheses based upon the broken fragments of half-excavated truths.
We will get no help from Western states, particularly not France and the United States. In the face of peak oil and the global war on terror, both have effectively dropped all demands upon the Algerian regime for truth and accountability. If the truth of this dirty civil war is to see the light of day, the impetus will have to come from inside Algeria. Yet as much as the mothers who hold a weekly vigil at the capital’s Place Addis Ababa desperately want to know the fate of their “disappeared” children, there are many more Algerians, and not just those in power, who desperately want to forget the 1990s.
The major revelation of Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed is that we still know very little about the Algerian civil war.